Genius, and other essays/Kipling's Ballads of The Seven Seas

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Genius, and other essays by Edmund Clarence Stedman
Kipling's Ballads of "The Seven Seas"

XXIII

KIPLING'S BALLADS OF "THE SEVEN SEAS"[1]

THE dedication of Mr. Kipling's new collection of ballads is a significant poem, "To the City of Bombay," his birthplace.

Between the palms and the sea,
Where the world-end steamers wait.

This, like the prelude to his earlier book of verse, avows a recognition of the forces that have had most to do with his work. He finds it well that his birth fell not in "waste headlands of the earth"; but the world sees also that no more fortunate chance could befall an Englishman of his generation, and of a genius that would be manifest in any environment, than to be born in a distant and imperial British dependency; to be bred to realize what has made his nation so great; and thus, of all English writers, best to know the hearts of "such as fought and sailed and ruled and loved and made our world."

This good fortune, if through it he has lost something of the idyllic charm and sweetness, has saved him from the over-refinement which glosses the exquisite measures in which England's home-keeping poets give us chiefly variations of thoughts and themes essentially the same. The faultless verse of the closing period surely needed a corrective. The breath of Kipling's fresh and virile song swept across it like a channel sea-wind driving the spindrift over hedge and garden-close. Both its spirit and its method have taken the English-reading world, and they maintain their hold in this new collection, entitled The Seven Seas.

Few authors comprehend so well their natural bent as Mr. Kipling, or have the sense to follow it so bravely. At this stage, and as a poet, he is a balladist through and through, though one likely enough to be eminent in any effort which he may seriously undertake. The balladist's gift is distinctive. A single lyric of Drayton's, the thousandth part of his work, has made his name heroic. Browning's "Hervé Riel" and Tennyson's "The Revenge" and "Lucknow" show that their authors returned to the ballad, and not to something less, at the very height of their fame. We feel that, as a balladist alone, the preacher-poet of the "Last Buccaneer" and "Lorraine" was near of kin to his greater compeers, and if Thornbury's stars had not destined him to be a hack-writer, the Songs of the Cavaliers and Roundheads would not now be out of print through the obscurity of his name. But the splendor of "The English Flag" and "The Ballad of East and West," and the originality and weird power of "Danny Deever," find in the present volume and its predecessor a score of counterparts almost as striking, and find their foil, it must be added, in pieces quite below Kipling's level and really harmful to his fame. As he may fairly consider himself still near the outset of his career, one may hope that the latter class will in time be banished from collective editions of his poetry, and that no literary ghoul of the future will venture to restore them.

Genius is said to be proved by its lapses, but even genius, since Tennyson, has been usually "successful" in technique. Kipling, however, with his fine reliance upon the first intention, never emasculates his verse; on the other hand, either through a lack of self-restraint, or working too often for a tempting wage, he achieves more failures than are needed to distinguish his gift from talent by the negative test. These are not wanting in the new barrack-room ballads. What is best in them is scarcely new, and what is new is not indispensable. "Back to the Army Again," "Soldier and Sailor Too," and perhaps a third or fourth, may well go with the "Tommy" and "Fuzzy-Wuzzy" of old, but one can spare a dozen others which seem but "runnin' emptyings" of the Atkins beer. It needs the British private at his best to make us tolerate the "Gawd" and "bloomin'" lingo that only heroism and our poet's magic can ennoble. Not a little of Kipling's balladry is also in a sense too esoteric. The life of this most primitive and spontaneous form of poetry is simplicity. True, there is one simplicity for the elect, and another for the multitude, but there must be something in a strong work that appeals to all. The realism of a lyric, moreover, be it cockney slang or other detail, must interest the future no less than the present, the ultimate test being endurance. These reflections would not be worth while in the case of a lesser man. Mr. Kipling now can afford to be silent for long intervals, rather than to give out a single stanza that is not in his happier vein.

But while dainty rhymesters hoard and pare, the public will never contemn so resourceful and generous a lyrical spendthrift. When we turn to the larger portion of The Seven Seas, how imaginative it is, how impassioned, how superbly rhythmic and sonorous! Kipling now betakes himself to the main which English keels have ploughed for ages, and, like them, makes it his own from the tropics to the pole. "A Song of the English," with its ballads and interludes, is the cantata of a master. "The Rhyme of the Three Sealers" is grimly intrepid—his ruthless Yankee skippers are transformed to Vikings in the arctic fog. "The Mary Gloster" and "McAndrew's Hymn" are, each in its way, thoroughly realistic—the latter monologue being as true a comprehension of the ingrained Scottish temper as can be drawn—stronger, in fact, than most of Browning's dramatic monologues when he left the middle ages for a contemporary study of that kind. "The Song of the Banjo," with its masterly refrains, is resonant of pathos, humor, and the world-around music of vagrants that, when all is said, are the world's pioneers. And of these ballads the most remarkable is that rollicking unique, "The Last Chantey," doubtless one of the purest examples, since Coleridge's wondrous "Rime," of the imaginatively grotesque. That it is a grotesque may exile it from the highest field of art, but, like Doré's masterpiece, Le Juif Errant, it is a paragon of its kind. It is true to the mental cosmology of the sailor class, and to the author's own fancy (as seen in "Tomlinson" and the Prelude to the earlier Ballads) by its retention of the mediæval notion of God, the Devil, and supramundane goings-on—as much so as the overture of Faust. The measure is roysteringly delightful. Who but Kipling would take up the catch of "All round my hat I vears a green villow," and use it for a ballad which, if fantastic, is of magnificent grade? Such an expedient, that few would detect, shows that his methods are as bold as his imaginings, and that no good workman need be at a loss for tools.

The ring and diction of all this verse add new elements to our song. Kipling's realism proves again that the strongest flights are taken from the ground of truth—that ideality and experience are not antagonistic. More than other modern poets of England, he has had the liberty of her realm; for him sea and shore, ice and desert-sand, are Britain's domain, or that of those who speak her tongue. Of such, the soldier and sailor, the explorer, of every degree, are his people, and the traders large and small. To reveal their sensations is easy for the insight that created a demonic soul within the Ganges "Mugger" and is on human terms with all the beasts of the jungle.

Kipling's national mode of thought found expression in the proud outburst, "What should they know of England who only England know!" He is now more than ever the celebrant of the empire, and of the deeds of men that extend it:

If blood be the price of Admiralty,
 Lord God we ha' paid it in!

He is thus, in some degree, the true laureate of Greater Britain. Others may sing the praise of a home administration, but his song is scornful of form and rule that irk or fail to comprehend the English spirit in its courses round the globe. Of all Victorian poets Tennyson was the most indubitably an Englishman, from a focal and outlooking point of view; and among those that survive, Kipling expresses the imperial inspiration, from every far-off station which he knows so well, looking toward the central isles. It is impossible that America, boding the unwritten federation of English-speaking peoples, should not be on closer terms with Mr. Kipling than with other transatlantic singers, by virtue of whatever share we still possess in the greatness of our ancient motherland.

  1. The Book Buyer, November, 1896.